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Paint By Numbers: Rauschenberg's MoMA Retrospective

A sweeping show highlights the artist's love of collaboration.

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1n 1953, a recent art-school graduate named Robert Rauschenberg asked his hero, Willem de Kooning, to make him a drawing. He obliged. Then the young artist, in a Dadaist twist, painstakingly effaced it. And then he exhibited it. Erased de Kooning was both homage and prank— but it was also an early Pop Art salvo that literally expunged the solitary, solipsistic turmoil of Abstract Expressionism and replaced it with a gesture of radical egalitarianism. This early work is at the heart of “Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends,” a 250-piece retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The show, taking over the museum’s fourth floor, reconsiders the artist’s 60-year legacy—not only for its inventiveness, but for the collaborative spirit that animated it. “Rauschenberg was dismissive of a single artist, godlike, creating something in toto,” curator Leah Dickerman says. “For him, art was an encounter among equals.”

Rauschenberg’s famous “combines”—sculptural paintings that incorporate everyday objects—here become a metaphor for his career-long effort to fill what he called “the gap between art and life.” The show’s best works merge not only materials (paint, comic strips, socks) but genres and people too: He worked on dance with Merce Cunningham, music with John Cage, painting with Cy Twombly and Susan Weil. There are also visionary collaborations with scientists at the dawn of the computer age (of note: the hypnotic, rarely seen Mud Muse, an 8,000-pound mud pit that bubbles up in response to a sound-activated compressed-air system; and Moon Museum, a wafer-thin ceramic chip he doodled on with Claes Oldenburg and Andy Warhol—a copy of which was allegedly left on the moon by Apollo 12).

Rauschenberg had a talent for reframing the ordinary—a tire, a quilt, a stuffed crow—so that it could be seen in a new way. The show makes clear that gift extended to the people he knew. May 21–September 17; moma.org.

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